Talking about a revolution

ANALYSIS: Talking about a revolution —Salman Tarik Kureshi

Modern history has seen a number of major revolutions. Those of England in the 17th century, the US in the 18th and France between the 18th and 19th centuries are, in the Marxian paradigm, regarded as bourgeois revolutions, which led to the establishment of capitalist economies and constitutional democracies

“I saw…a vision,

Of a time when all men walk proudly through the earth,

And the bombs and missiles lie at the bottom of the ocean,

Like the bones of dinosaurs buried under the shale of eras,

And men strive with each other not for power or the accumulation of paper,

But in joy create for others the house, the poem,

The game of athletic beauty.

Then washed in the brightness of this vision,

I saw how in its radiance would grow and be nourished.

And suddenly,

Burst into terrible and splendid bloom,

The blood-red flower of revolution” — Dudley Randall, American poet.

The vision is compelling. Whether in the popular mind, or that of the artist, the road to utopia is perceived as lying through the valley of apocalypse. Continually, teahouse pundits and drawing-room chatterers have argued that Pakistan’s problems require a “real” revolution. “What we need is a bloody revolution,” they assert. In his recent address to his party members, MQM chief Altaf Hussain has given political validity to just such a view, holding that a revolution “similar to the French Revolution” is what is needed in Pakistan. Such a revolution is perceived as necessary to liberate the people from the stranglehold of corrupt feudal lords.

His additional, more controversial, appeal to “patriotic generals” has received plenty of comment elsewhere. The purpose of today’s piece is to present a brief historical analysis of the concept of revolution and relate it to our own national scene.

There are numerous theories concerning the role of revolutions in history. Toynbee saw revolutions as resulting from one or the other enormity within a society (such as slavery in the US, oppression of the serfs in Manchu China, apartheid in South Africa, etc.) festering like malignant abscesses until they eventually erupt. Anarchists like Herzen and Bakunin regarded revolution as the violent cleansing process by which the downtrodden would finally achieve liberation from the tyrannical institutions of family, religion, the state and society. The most fully articulated ideas were those of Karl Marx, who regarded revolution as the essential accompaniment of transition from one material epoch to the next, i.e. from slave-owning patrician society to feudalism, from feudalism to bourgeois capitalism and from capitalist society to proletarian socialism.

Modern history has seen a number of major revolutions. Those of England in the 17th century, the US in the 18th and France between the 18th and 19th centuries are, in the Marxian paradigm, regarded as bourgeois revolutions, which led to the establishment of capitalist economies and constitutional democracies. The Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century proclaimed themselves as socialist revolutions that established socialised economies and proletarian dictatorships. The Iranian revolution of the 20th century cannot be categorised within this paradigm.

Let us look more closely at these six seminal political events. Other than the American Revolution, which defined itself along constitutional lines almost from the beginning, there was nothing particularly capitalistic or democratic in the other two revolutionary examples during their periods of extended upheaval. The English Revolution set up a state-controlled religious dictatorship, which had strange parallels (albeit with obvious differences) to that of the Taliban in recent times. The French Revolution was characterised by periodic countervailing (and quite irrational) spasms of extreme violence. In both cases, democracy was established almost as an afterthought. It was as if these societies, tiring of upheaval and bloodshed, became determined to establish participative systems that would forever safeguard against any further such upheaval.

As regards the two nominally socialist revolutions, the proletarian content in both was negligible. No significant capitalist system existed in Czarist Russia against which a socialist revolution needed to be mounted. At best, there was a fledgling industrial sector — and that, too, state owned — and therefore no significant bourgeoisie or proletariat. Lenin and his comrades acted on behalf of a proletariat in the process of coming into existence and overthrew a capitalist system that was still in its infancy. Eighty years after the Siege of the Winter Palace, Russian society morphed into a constitutional democracy and set up a thoroughgoing capitalist economic system.

In Manchu China, prior to Dr Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution in 1911 (his great follower Mao Zedong was a teenager at the time), there was no industrial capitalism at all. Sun and, later, Mao led property-owning agrarian peasants, not property-less industrial proletarians. An Asiatic tendency to rhetoric notwithstanding, private property continued to flourish in Chairman Mao’s nominally communist China (albeit shrinking under communist reform), alongside the socialist sector. And today’s China is, of course, a powerhouse of unabashedly capitalist growth.

With the Iranian revolution, the political locus and philosophical identity are confused. In any case, it is much too early to assess the kind of society that is in fact being built there. The key fact before us is that the Iranian Revolution was a revolution against the tyranny of Shah Reza Pahlavi. And it is this characteristic that all five of the other revolutions also have in common. All of these were anti-monarchic (or post-monarchic anti-autocracy) revolutions and each of these succeeded in establishing popular sovereignty, whether by creating republics or, in the English case, eventually a constitutional monarchy.

Thus, revolution can be seen as a methodology for ending absolute monarchies and autocracies and creating popular sovereignty. Given the appalling bloodshed and the sacrifice of two or three whole generations, it is not necessarily the best means towards even this end.

If my reader finds this rejection of 19th century concepts and categories a somewhat individual view of history, I make no apologies. It is a realistic view. For a nation like Pakistan, with no monarchs to behead and an already extant constitutional democracy to run, the concept of revolution is irrelevant. We would only add a few million more violent deaths to the numbers already generated by the Partition massacres, the East Pakistan civil war, the military actions against the rebels in Balochistan and the MRD (Movement for Restoration of Democracy) movement in Sindh, the sectarian killings in Punjab, the ethnic killings in Karachi, the continuing terrorist atrocities and so on and so forth.

We are fortunate to have already established an independent republic, a democratic system, popular sovereignty and a constitution. It is these we need to cherish and nurture.

The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet

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